Kakenya Ntaiya is a member of the Maasai tribe. She was born in a village called Enoosaen in the Trans Mara region of southwest Kenya.
The Maasai of Enoosaen maintain small family farms and, like all Maasai, count their wealth in cattle. Her father worked as a police officer in the city and was away from Enoosaen most of the time. When he did come home, he frequently sold one of the cows Kakenya's mother relied on to sustain the family and used the money for his own entertainment. He was sometimes physically abusive to her mother.
Young girls in Enoosaen are expected to help their mothers care for the animals, the farm, and younger siblings. Once all of those things are done, they may be permitted to attend school which is often several miles away. Traveling alone on foot, the girls face many threats, including sexual assault.
At around the age of 12 or 13 years, girls in Kakenya's community undergo a ceremony that includes female genital cutting, signaling their readiness for marriage. Once married, girls are generally required to drop out of school to raise families and tend farms of their own.
Kakenya wanted a different life. She knew she would need an education available to few Maasai girls. So, she traded a part of herself. She agreed to accept the tradition of being cut if her father would promise to delay her marriage. He agreed.
When she graduated from high school, she needed the support of the elders of her community to go on. Once she had it, she became the first girl to leave Enoosaen to go to college. She attended Randolph-Macon Women's College in the United States on scholarship.
When she graduated, she went on to pursue a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh.
Throughout her higher education, she spoke about the conditions for girls in Enoosaen.
In 2007, Vital Voices was introduced to Kakenya by the Nike Foundation. She attended the Vital Voices Summit in Cape Town, South Africa where she became a mentor to a young Kenyan, Rebecca Theori.
As she worked on her dissertation, Kakenya became more and more certain that she would do something significant to repay the elders of Enoosaen who had blessed her journey. She dreamed that every girl in the village could have the opportunities she had made for herself. She knew this depended on two things. First, they needed to avoid early marriages. Second, they needed a school of their own. A boarding school where they would not be waylaid on the way and where household chores would not take precedence over learning to read and write.
“I can't wait until I have all the money raised. Each year that I wait — while I'm finishing my PhD — more girls are being cut; more girls are being married; more girls are dropping out of school. I can't wait. I have to start now.”
— Kakenya Ntaiya
The first group of 30 fourth-grade girls enrolled at the Kakenya Center for Excellence in January 2009. They come from all over the Trans Mara district. They graduated from 8th Grade in 2013 and were ranked with the top students in all of Kenya. The Kakenya Center for Excellence continues to support them as they transition to High Schools throughout the country.
A new school uniform is an essential part of making sure that each student feels her education is important and that the school is making an investment in her future. Donors from around the world contribute to provide each student with a uniform, learning materials, and three meals a day. Because of this, students are able to focus on learning.
“Every child — it doesn't matter where they are — every child has a dream. I want them to know that their dreams are possible.”
— Kakenya Ntaiya
Photography — Kate Cummings
Photography — Aaron Kisner
Videography — Georgia Court
Animation — Pistachios
Music — Dan Radlauer